Much like a long-term engagement, Ricky Kneece started out slow with peanuts. Four years later, he’s glad he did. It’s helped him learn how to grow the crop and produce consistent yields and quality.

Before 1999, he and his father, Delano, were cotton, soybean, wheat and corn growers in Lexington County, S.C.

Today, they’re on the vanguard of new peanut production in South Carolina and the recipients of the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award for the Virginia-Carolina area.

Kneece, 43, will accept the award at the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation meeting in Panama City Beach, Fla., July 20-22.

In addition to paying attention to and following Extension recommendations of one of the Clemson University peanut specialists, Kneece benefits from new drying technology, no-till and irrigation.

After starting out small with 40 acres of peanuts, Kneece will grow 379 acres this season. Last year, he had average yields of 5,300 pounds per acre on 350 acres.

"We just wanted to try them," Kneece says in an understated way. "We had a friend who talked us into trying a few acres."

He grew up on the farm his father, Delano, started in the early 1950s. "I’ve never worked a public job," Kneece proudly says. "I came up in my father’s footsteps.

Today, he and his father and his wife, Roxanne, farm some 1,800 acres of cropland. They also produce 100 to 150 head of stocker cattle each year. Hay is harvested on approximately 100 acres to feed the livestock. Ricky grinds the corn to feed the livestock. Their son, Kain, who’s in high school, makes this a third-generation operation. Their oldest son, J.D., owns and operates a horse breeding facility on some of his father’s irrigated land.

South Carolina is one of eight major peanut-producing states, but when Kneece started growing the crop, he had to go looking for pounds to lease or buy. He signed a contract and "just kept growing into it and getting a little bigger."

That first year, he borrowed two row combines and diggers. Now, he uses six-row Amadas combines and six-row Kelley diggers.

Looking back on how he got into peanuts, Kneece recalls the importance of the decision to sell the peanuts back to the buying station where the previous grower had taken the crop. Four years ago that meant trucking the peanuts to places such as Statesboro, Ga., and Girard, Ga. But he says that "helped us get our foot in the door."

It’s helped him develop a relationship with shellers. Last year, when he had to hold some peanuts in order to get cotton harvested, a sheller called with an offer of $600 per ton for the peanuts.

He plans to sell most of the peanuts this year to Southern Peanut Company, Dublin, N.C. and Severn Peanut Company at Severn, N.C.

A year into the new peanut program, he could be planting more acres, he acknowledges, but won’t because of rotation.

Of all the practices he uses, irrigation is the one that makes the yields possible.

"We wouldn’t be where we’re at without irrigation," Kneece says. "It would be hard to plant a crop without irrigation."

Lack of rain in one out of every five years makes irrigation essential. Even with rain, irrigation is the extra boost that keeps yields up. He irrigates on an as-needed basis.

Kneece cites reduced trips across the field, as well as increased organic matter, as the chief benefits of his decision to plant peanuts no till.

Much of the land he farms is sandy and lends itself to the practice. He used to plant a cover crop in the fall, but has since decided to plant into the stubble of the previous crop instead of disturbing the soil.

There is a trade-off, however. "It costs more in spray materials, but you can get over the ground faster with spraying than you can with tillage," Kneece points out.

Kneece had a long-established rotational pattern before peanuts came on the scene at his farm. Peanuts are now in the rotation with corn and cotton.

"We normally plant peanuts behind corn," Kneece says.

In the past he grew more runners than Virginias. Now it’s the opposite; He grows mainly NC-V 11 and Gregory and a sprinkling of Perry. He inoculates the peanut seed before planting with both liquid and granular form. "That makes a big difference." He broadcasts gypsum at 35 to 40 days with a spreader truck.

He takes soil samples annually and fertilizes the crop according to recommendations. Following recommendations that first year helped correct a zinc problem. "We had to change the lime we were using because we had high levels of zinc, which is toxic to peanuts. It cost us more for a different lime, but that’s really helped keep our pH levels correct.

"I would say keeping the soil pH up like it’s supposed to be is important," Kneece says.

When it comes to disease control, Kneece isn’t one to pull punches.

"If you fudge on fungicide, you fudge on yields," Kneece says.

He starts on a schedule about 35 days after planting and continues every 14 days. He uses a chlorathanonil product such as Bravo and Tilt for the first two applications, followed by Abound, Folicur, alternating the two fungicides with different modes of action to finish out the season. He’s looking at adding the new fungicide Headline to the schedule this season.

He also monitors the crop closely, just in case another fungicide application is needed.

"I’d call Dr. Jay (Chapin) and we’d walk over the rows and he’d suggest I throw in an extra spray and then he advised me to return to the regular schedule the next week. He’s been very helpful. I listen to what he says."

Following recommendations has a payoff in increased yields, Kneece says. He harvested 5,300 pounds per acre on 350 acres last year.

Because of the four-year peanut rotation, Kneece will plant the crop for the first time on the same land he began with in 1999. "It will tell us if we’re going to have any problems with diseases," he says.

Last year, he noticed tomato spot wilt virus on each acre he planted.

As the calendar turns closer to fall, timeliness continues to be the dominant factor.

"With Virginia peanuts, more can go wrong," Kneece says. "You have to dig on time and get them out of the field on time."

By the time a third of cotton is defoliated, it’s time to start picking peanuts. Before half of the peanuts are in the bin, the cotton is ready for harvest. "We have to let the cotton wait," Kneece says, "because we feel like the peanuts are more important at harvest because they can’t stand the wait as well as cotton."

With the peanuts picked, Kneece turns to curing the crop.

On the farm, he’s taken advantage of cutting-edge technology developed and tested at the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga. Chris Butts, USDA-ARS ag engineer and other colleagues developed the "batch dry" method to help ease the bottleneck at buying points. The GSI systems looks like a grain bill, but has a top and bottom section inside the bin.

Kneece harvests the peanuts at 18 percent moisture. Peanuts in the top section of the system dry and then are rotated with the peanuts in the bottom section. "If conditions are right, we start gathering peanuts at 10:30 or 11 o’clock in the morning and can have two tractor trailers ready to go the next morning at 5 o’clock," Kneece says. "We don’t get much sleep, but if you’ve got the right kind of weather, it’s faster than the old-type dryers or taking the peanuts to the buying point to dry."

As new South Carolina growers geared up to enter peanut production, Kneece thought back on his decision to try a new crop four years ago. "I hope they don’t get too big too quick," he says. "We started out small and I’m glad we did. Peanuts are something you need to grow into."

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com